They say that ‘power corrupts’, and that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Secrecy is part of it, of course, and power needs justification, so if prestige and privilege can be added, then the situation should be almost beyond questioning; people will believe that those who have power do what is right and good; there is no reason to question them, and it may even be seen as impolite do so; we should rather admire the powerful, even fear them, if not directly then for their intellectual and cultural leadership and wisdom.

In earlier times and in countries with young and weak democratic institutions or, no democracy at all, leaders, power, can get away with much which doesn’t see the light of the day. But in countries with long and well developed democracies, people know that it is necessary to control and curtail power. Yet, also in such countries, people can be lured to let some people and some institutions operate almost above control.

The recent scandal at the Swedish Academy shows that even in Sweden, one of the world’s most democratic countries, reminiscences of old and outdated institutions can still be found. Below, I shall summarise the sad situation of the Swedish Academy’s current crisis – before the institution moves into the modern times observing accountability, openness and today’s laws. At the end of the article, I shall point at some overall lessons we can draw from it all.

Let me note initially that much good can also be said about the work of the Swedish Academy, up to the crisis that topped the news last week, and shook the Academy in its foundation. To some extent, it may be a storm in a teacup, well, a big teapot, with leaves making it difficult to see what is in it. Yet, culturally, the Swedish Academy is important, indeed for Sweden’s general image internationally.

The Swedish Academy was founded by the Swedish King Gustav III in 1786 and has been a protector and promoter of Swedish language and literature ever since. Its generous funds allow it to award numerous awards and scholarships and provide support to studies and publications, including the Swedish dictionary and other key language publications. In 1901, the Nobel Foundation entrusted the Swedish Academy to select the annual winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

For a gentleman and a man of letters (and since 1914, also women) to be named to be one of the eighteen, ‘De Aderton’, of the Academy is one of the most prestigious appointments one can have in the land, for life, no less. Well, perhaps not quite so any more, since the Academy has been in a deep crisis for the last half year. It was a number of sexual harassment and assault accusations by the husband of an Academy member that triggered the crisis, in the wake of the #MeToo campaign. The accused, Jean-Claude Arnaud, is the husband of the famous poet and Academy member Katarina Frostenson. Arnaud is himself a renowned photographer and cultural personality of French origin, running a literature centre downtown Stockholm, with his wife. The centre has received funds from the Academy, at the same time as Frostenson has been a member of the donating body.

Normally, all such things would have been swept under the carpet and kept secret, alas, not this time; one leak after the other sifted out and a myriad of intriguing internal conflicts came to the surface and into the public domain. Seven Academy members, including the permanent secretary, Literature Professor Sara Danius, recently left the Academy. Since the number of members to form quorum and make decisions in the Academy is twelve, the Academy is now, at least in theory, non-functional. The King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, the high protector of the Academy, has expressed his deep concern and is working with the remaining members to change the statutes to revive the Academy. The Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, has expressed his worries regarding the intrigues and harsh language of the conflict. Many have voiced their concern about the damage the conflict has done to Sweden’s general reputation internationally, indeed to the recognition and value of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded along with the four other Nobel Prizes at the end of every year to much pomp and circumstance; the sixth prize, the Nobel Peace Prize, is awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

In the end, the conflict may not as much be about gender issues and sexual harassment; untidy distribution of funds; friendship and nepotism; life in a mainly gentlemen’s world; and other murkiness. As for the gender aspects, it remains a fact that Sara Danius was the first woman to be elected permanent secretary (on 1 June 2015) – and to resign (on 12 April 2018). The conflict may rather be about the veining days of archaic, outdated and secretive ways of running business and administering power, on the one hand – and more pragmatic, professional, modern and open work-styles, on the other hand.

‘De Aderton’ may have been above all and everyone for far too long, perhaps even following some ways to when the Academy was founded 232 years ago. The need for change has caught up with the Academy – and it was about time, wasn’t it? Sad, though, that it was a scandal that led to it happening; it should have been otherwise, in one of the world’s most democratic countries. Yet, many of us many of us may only change if we have to and if it is in our own interest to do so. That is why socialists always argue that it is the oppressed that must fight for their rights; we cannot wait for the oppressors to find that time is ripe to share power and resources. On that note, let me recall that today, the private sector has realised that more equal societies, where men and women participate in diverse communities, are better, more innovative and sustainable than societies and companies in countries with large inequalities.

Openness is required for people’s participation in the affairs of organisations and companies. If information is hidden and debates stifled, democratic participation becomes impossible and it hurts the organisations, institutions and companies. Professional inputs are needed to get new ideas and knowledge about specific subject matters as well as broader administrative and other issues. It is particularly important that organisations and institutions that serve the public have this kind of openness and inclusiveness. I remember from my time as a university staff member in Norway in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, that several governing bodies had broad participation from within the institution as well as laypeople from the general public. In the private sector, labour unions and employers associations are crucial. Yet, also in advanced Scandinavian democracies, there is need for further democratisation of government as well as private sector workplaces. It is also interesting to note that government offices and companies abroad are fast at developing less open cultures than they would have had to follow at home.

I began my article with reference to a popular saying about power and corruption. I believe that a culture of secrecy is damaging to institutions because the advantages of insight and control are missed. True, it can be ‘disturbing’ if outsiders peep into one’s cards all the time. But it also avoids strange and self-serving cultures from developing, and it certainly hinders corruption and direct misuse of power.

I believe we can learn much from the crisis and fall of the Swedish Academy. I hope one of the world’s most democratic and innovative countries can find the right ways out of the crisis so that not only the Academy but the country can restore the institution and its reputation nationally and internationally. There are many difficult and embarrassing issues to discuss, and not all should become fodder for media gossip columns in spite of the openness that is required.

Rather than feeling any form of Schadenfreude and smile arrogantly, I feel sadness for the crisis that the Swedish Academy is in. I studied in Sweden when I was young, and I have always looked up to the country, its institutions and people’s values about fairness and inclusiveness; yes, we Norwegian neighbours saw the Swedes as being ahead of us. Let us admit that no country is perfect. I hope the Swedes will solve the crisis of the Swedish Academy in a way that we can all learn from. I expect no less than close to exemplary democratic leadership from the Swedes; it should be ‘lagom’, just the right amount, to include all!


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.